This is it y’all… Like a 24/7 diner hostess working night shifts lighting up a cigarette from their second pack of the day to fell any rush of nicotine, I need to increase my dose of approval to satisfy my ever expending ego. My mum’s unconditional approval is not enough anymore. I need MORE!
Writing on this blog is like a gateway drug. You start feeling the rush of endorphin with each hate comment on my Between Two Rocks satirical posts but I now need even more… Don’t get me wrong, approval from New Haven people is great, but when I see you all crawl out of the bars on Crown Street on Saturday night, I think I need to find a drug that’s not laced with Sunday morning regrets.
You know what I need? The approval of respectable audience! The kind that goes to the farmers market at the opening and make homemade kombucha. The kind of audience that has a New Yorker tote bag and a pile of said New Yorkers unread in the bathroom. The kind of audience that listens to NPR with their colleagues in the car but shamefully switches to KC101 when alone.
I think I am going to have to do it. I think I will have to partner with a dusty museum to showcase a difficult topic and use a color palette for the design of the show coming straight from an emo hot topic t-shirt from early 2000s…
Let me catch you up! I’m a French rocket scientist turned manager of a research center on quantum science with a passion for arts & science. When I meet new people, I usually get asked what I do for a living. “I manage the Yale Quantum Institute and I work with quantum physicists”. Almost every time, I am met with blank stares and awkward silences. (The rest of the time, they call me a nerd and give me a wedgie…).
Quantum physics seems so abstract and foreign that it paralyzes my interlocutors, forcing them out of this fascinating subject. The lack of exposure to quantum physics and the cultural assumption it is one of the most complex subjects in physics might be the reasons why people are so reluctant to discuss this topic. When I think about quantum physics, I get excited about cats being dead and alive at the same time, spooky actions at a distance, entanglements… In 2016, when I became the manager of the Yale Quantum Institute (YQI), I wanted the outreach programing to be for everyone, something fun and accessible. And full of art!
I met Martha W. Lewis, a New Haven based visual artist, at one of the City Wide Open Studio weekends organized by Artspace (CWOS happens every October, highly recommend!) when she showcased her work in her studio at Erector Square in Fair Haven. Her practice draws from human knowledge and history of science, and she makes, among other artwork, these beautiful abstract landscapes expending technical drawings of parts and schematic into mesmerizing pieces. I hired her as YQI first artist-in-residence in 2017 for which she developed an installation that was showcased at the Arts & Ideas Festival. Since, we continued to work together on art and book projects and on radio shows… Her amazing talent fuels my theater kid personae.
During her residency at YQI, she documented the work performed by quantum researchers (from experimentalists tinkering in the lab, theorist writing equations on whiteboards, to the group discussions in the seminar room) in a series of pencil drawings in her notebooks. Including beautiful portraits of our famous “fridges”.
Two of the laboratories YQI has under its umbrella (we have a total of 23 research groups working on all topics in quantum science and information) are focusing on superconducting qubits: the circuit board of quantum computers! This new technology would be able to outperform any classical computers. You might have already heard of quantum computers in the news thanks to the recent technology breakthroughs of Tech Giants like Google or IBM, or from you drunk uncle who wants you to invest in his new own crypto coin because you know… bitcoin disruptive quantum NFT blockchain! I’m sure your uncle is great but stop listening to your family for quantum computers info, stick to the science news sites.
The only teeny-tinny very small practical detail with superconducting qubits is that… they need to be cool down to ABSOLUTE ZERO to function. Yep! That damn quantum computer won’t boot Windows Vista if it’s not at -259F… To give you an idea of how cold this is, outer space is warmer!
Hence our fridges. Our students and researchers are using dilution refrigerators to cool down their experiment to almost absolute zero to perform their quantum experiments. The quantum lab started at Yale in the late 1990s with a single fridge called “Kelvinox” and a handful of researchers. Today, they built and run 17 other fridges, became one of the largest academic quantum computing groups in the world, and trained the majority of the superconducting qubit researchers in the quantum workforce. All that from our quint little town known for her pizzas.
Since they started this field of study, researchers had to build their own prototypes from scratch and the handcrafted nature of each device gives the individual fridges a unique look, function, and characteristics, which prompted Martha to create “family portraits” of these chilly mechanisms. Her portrait are beautifully printed on large metallic sheets and displayed in the museum along cavities, qubits and substrates scattered around the exhibition.
The star of the show is Badger, a dilution fridge built in 2002 in the Becton laboratories on Prospect Street. It famously ran the world’s first two-qubit algorithms with a superconducting quantum processor in 2009. This might sound hard to understand but this was an important technological breakthrough. My boss explicitly forbid me to say this could be seen as the first heartbeat of a quantum computer. So I am not saying it. I AM NOT SAYING IT!
What I am saying is that experiments hosted inside Badger were the prototypes upon which all the current superconducting devices in the lab are built. And I’m saying that all the other quantum laboratories and industry leaders (Google, IBM, Intel…) across the world have since hired all our graduates, widely adopted this technology, and incorporated it in their commercial quantum computers. Our New Haven researchers must have done something right!
We are today at the very early stages of quantum computing, at the juncture when a quantum computers takes up a whole room, and yet is barely capable of an infinitesimal fraction of the computational power of your smartphone. But we are getting there and you should be very excited! In the next 5 to 10 years, we should all see quantum computers outperform any of our most powerful classical computers with applications in cybersecurity, to develop better drugs, optimize complex systems like airline scheduling or improve modeling for weather forecasting.
And probably for a lot of porn… After all, have you seen the phallic shape of that computer?
Since the begin of the article, I’ve thrown fridges names at you. Blue, Dreadnought, Vericold, Tennessee…. Researchers working on their fridges become really attached to their experiments. Human empathy is powerful, and I remember vividly the reaction of one of the researchers who was very offended when I “badmouthed” one of their fridges. There is something extraordinarily special about this relationship. The devotion and love of researcher towards their dilution fridge is a key element of the development of this technology. And they give them names! The exhibition at the museum is also an excuse to discover the delightful stories behind these names (which is truly the best part of the show!). I’ll reveal the story for Badger here, but you will have to come to the museum for the other names!
In 2011, Badger catastrophically broke down. Repairing it would be long and painful, and researchers let Badger sat, warm and unrepaired for a year and a half to use the other new and more efficient fridges. Two researchers, Ioan Pop and Clarke Smith, were courageous enough to try to repair it, but when opening up the device, much to their dismay, they found Badger had much more complex problems requiring even more extensive work than they thought. During the repair, Nick Masluk showed Clarke this viral video:
Like the stung honey badger, the fridge woke up from its massive operation like nothing had ever happened (“Badger don’t care!”), and Clarke decided to name it after the very resilient, poisonous snake eating mammal. Yes, that very high-tech quantum device is named after a meme… This is the kind of information you would not see in the Nature peer-reviewed article about the experiment in Badger!
And therefore, the most important equation to ever come out of a research lab since E=mc2 is:
cutting edge tech + viral video = best fridges names ever
This silly video is actually the reason why I wanted to learn about the stories behind the other names (amongst them Moonshine, Lazarus, Smeagol, The Grechka…). For the last two years, I interviewed current and formers researchers, and realized there were something special here. Something untold that I would like to share with everyone.
Martha and I worked on the exhibition narrative, collected (and saved from the trash!) laboratory devices and artifacts to display, researched their use and function, fact checked all the details, designed the look and feel of the show, and created a beautifully illustrated exhibition companion catalog… Oh and soooo much copy editing and back and forth with the Museum. So much!! But it was all worth it.
You cannot imagine how proud I am of this exhibition. It has been a very challenging project to pull off. We made the show is visually sticking to distract you from the fact you’re actually learning! I hope you will come visit the show and that it will make you to learn more about quantum science. Or at least, not fear it as much.
Thank you to the New Haven Museum for hosting this exhibition. Special thanks to Jason Bischoff-Wurstle and Katie Piascyk for their invaluable help on this project.
Disclaimer: Some scientific details have been altered here for humorous purposes.
The Quantum Revolution: Handcrafted in New Haven
Explore Quantum science from the Yale Quantum Institute and view original artwork from Artist-In-Residence Martha Willette Lewis.
In the late 1990s, a small revolution started in New Haven. Experimentalists and theorists at Yale started to focus their attention on quantum mechanics to leverage its properties to build a new type of computer that could, in theory, overpower any of the current computers. After a decade of hard work and several technological breakthroughs, these researchers ran in 2009 the world’s first demonstration of two-qubit algorithms with a superconducting quantum processor inside a dilution refrigerator called Badger.
With this exhibition, we hope to show you what an incredible set of achievements this is. Scattered around the room are cavities, qubits, and substrates (the nuts and bolts of quantum architecture), all invented and handcrafted in New Haven by generations of researchers. The handcrafted nature of each device gives individual fridges a unique look, function, and characteristics, which prompted YQI Artist-in-Residence Martha Willette Lewis to create “fridge portraits” of these chilly mechanisms. For over 20 years, researchers in New Haven have built strong, meaningful relationships with their machines. Each fridge has a unique name, function, and story that we invite you to discover here.
Curator: Florian Carle
Artist: Martha W Lewis
Photography: Florian Carle & Jessica Smolinski
Scientific Consultant: Zhixin Wang
New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Avenue
Open Wed, Th, Fri, 10 am to 5 pm; Sat, 12 noon to 5 pm
Masks are required